If you can't keep a good man down, as the saying goes, then why should Dick Cheney—who regards himself as a better man than most—refrain from injecting himself into contemporary foreign-affairs debates? From the outset of the Obama presidency, Cheney, who visited the American Enterprise Institute, among other places, to issue dire warnings about the president's failure to safeguard the homeland from foreign bad guys, has made no secret of his belief that only the hardnosed policies he espoused during the Bush years are adequate. Now Cheney is making the rounds on Capitol Hill to warn against any impending defense budget cuts.
But does Cheney have the crediblity to warn about defense cuts? Only if you think that the torture policies he espoused were, to borrow a phrase from Oliver North, a neat idea. Only if you thought, or continue to think, that invading Iraq was a good idea. Only if you think that American military might, in other words, can turn the Middle East into a democracy on the Jeffersonian order overnight.
If some nagging doubts remain on this score, however, then Cheney's visit may not seem like the return of a solon to Washington, DC, but something else. It might seem like the act of a wretched, vain, petty man whose real concern, all along, has not been as much with the country's welfare as with scoring political points. Fortunately, as the Los Angeles Times observes, Cheney's act has worn rather thin. He may have met Senate Republicans at a luncheon on Tuesday. And he may be meeting with other top GOP leaders in the evening. But he can only preach to the already converted.
Cheney's adjurations no longer carry weight. One reason is that he specialized in apocalyptic warnings. Another, of course, is the Iraq fiasco. And yet another is that George W. Bush himself put Cheney on ice during the last two years of his administration, refusing to issue a full pardon to Scooter Libby. But it's also the case that, as the White House is reminding everyone, Cheney himself once famously declared that deficits don't matter. But as the American public seems to realize, he's wrong. They do matter. That the military should be held sacrosanct, exempt from any cuts, is untenable. The budget cannot be balanced without cuts that include it.
Now that the Pentagon faces sequestration unless a budget deal is reached, however, Republican hawks are scrambling to try and subvert the very accord that they reached with Obama. Meanwhile, the Democrats are announcing that they're ready to let all tax cuts lapse unless the GOP proves more accommodating on the issue of raising taxes on the wealthy. The perfect storm is developing. Perhaps it will impel both sides to reach a deal, to reform the tax code. Perhaps.
The more likely scenario is that some last-ditch temporary deal will be reached. But the attempts of Cheney to warn piously about the danger of subjecting the military to cuts rings hollow. If a deal is reached—and it should be—it won't because Cheney helped create one. It will be in spite of him. The last thing Republicans should be doing in an election year, of all years, is embracing the vice president who most epitomizes what went wrong during the Bush years. Instead, they should repudiate a man who breathes contempt for the very democratic virtues he purports to want to spread across the world.
Image: Gage Skidmore
Today, Mitt Romney will travel to the Teton Pines country club and a $30,000 per couple dinner at the home of former vice president Dick Cheney. The Washington Post says that it will amount to a passing of the torch from one of the leading members of the George W. Bush administration to Romney. But Romney's relationship with both George W. Bush and Cheney is farught with ambiguity, though he has referred to the latter as a "person"—Cheney would surely have used the noun "man"—of wisdom and judgment," words that Romney does not appear to have applied to the former president.
It could hardly be otherwise—and it points to one of the difficulties Romney faces as he tries to unseat President Obama. Obama has repeatedly tried to tie Romney to the Bush era, arguing that America has already tried the economic policies Romney is espousing and they failed miserably. Add in two wars launched by the Bush administration, and you have an American public that continues to take a dim view of the Bush presidency. The halo that retroactively surrounds a number of modern presidencies—Bill Clinton's stock, for example, has been steadily rising, partly because of the mishaps of his two successors—has not begun to circumvallate the Bush presidency. Quite the contrary.
Which is why the question of whether or not Romney would represent a reversion to the Bush-era foreign policy is acquiring a new prominence. The Post piece is symptomatic of attempts to divine just where Romney stands. It scrutinizes the Cheney dinner to ask whether officials from the Bush administration are successfully infiltrating the Romney campaign:
Many Cheney allies who shaped policy in the Bush years — including Lewis I. “Scooter” Libby, Paul Wolfowitz, John C. Yoo and David Addington — have no roles in the Romney campaign. Nor do many senior foreign policy figures from that period, such as Condoleezza Rice, Donald H. Rumsfeld, Colin L. Powell, Robert M. Gates and Stephen J. Hadley — although Hadley endorsed Romney in April and Rice spoke at Romney’s donor retreat last month.
But it also is the case that a number of neocons are advisers to Romney—so many that the Nation is not implausibly calling it Romney's neocon war cabinet. So, much head-scratching has ensued: Does Romney really mean it when he says that Russia is America's number-one foe? Is he prepared to take China to the World Court on the day he enters office? And would he bomb the ayatollahs back to the stone age? Or is it all a sop to the neocons?
Hence the fascination with the Cheney powwow. But perhaps the deeper relationship is between Romney and George H. W. Bush. The old man has been overtly enthusiastic about Romney, while the most his son managed to blurt out was "I'm for Mitt Romney" before ducking into an elevator, which is almost like saying, "I'm not against Mitt Romney." Small wonder that Romney kept mum when Bush made his unofficial endorsement. There may be a little intramural tension inside the Bush family as well. Forty-one likely sees Romney as his true disciple, a successor, who can rectify what forty-three bungled. So the question that continues to loom over Romney as he pals around with Cheney today is whether he can return the GOP to its more moderate, realist origins. Or whether he even wants to.
Kim Jong-un, the new leader of North Korea, turns out to be bringing some unexpected innovations to the Hermit Kingdom. His latest move isn't saber rattling. Rather, he is staging Walt Disney productions such as Sleeping Beauty on state-run television with a group that the Wall Street Journal says is called Moranbong.
Somehow, it makes sense the Magic Kingdom would be picked up by the Hermit Kingdom. Mickey Mouse may be as American as apple pie, but the fantasy element of the Disney World should comport well with the sheer weirdness of North Korea. The word is that Kim turns out to be something of a literary buff who wants to introduce a "grandiose"—how could it be otherwise?—"plan," says the Korean Central News Agency, to upend the country's culture, as though it hasn't already experienced enough upending. Apparently it includes co-opting Disney.
As the New York Times reports,
North Korean state-run television on Monday showed footage of costumed versions of Tigger, Minnie Mouse and other Disney characters prancing in front of the leader, Kim Jong-un, and an entourage of clapping generals.
The footage also showed Mr. Kim in a black Mao suit watching as Mickey Mouse conducted a group of young women playing violins in skimpy black dresses. At times, scenes from the animated Disney movies “Dumbo” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” were projected on a multipanel screen behind the entertainers; an article in the state-run press said unnamed foreign songs were on the bill.
Might Kim's move, his new role as cultural commissar, also be aimed at securing his succession? His older brother Kim Kong-nam got into hot water with his old man after he snuck into Japan and tried to visit Tokyo Disneyland. It spelled the end of any hopes he might have to succeeding to the communist throne. Now Kim Jong-un may be signaling that he feels confident enough to put on a Disney show and broadcast it to the masses. (Stalin liked to watch Hollywood movies with his chums in the Kremlin but did not allow them to be broadcast. An avid reader, he, like Hitler, fancied himself something of an authority on the arts, though Hitler would have recoiled at Disney as a sign of the cultural pollution of America.) In addition, Kim had a young woman seated next him—girlfriend, relative?—whose presence is inspiring much head-scratching about their relationship, if any. Is she actually his adviser on cultural affairs?
Throughout, much speculation has also centered on Kim's education in Switzerland, which is said to suggest that he might be more open to Western mores. But this is probably a misreading. Switzerland, a dour and thrifty nation, prides itself on its self-reliance, precisely the qualities that North Korea's leaders have sought to inculcate in its population. Nevertheless, North Korea's foray into Disney should not be interpreted as a sign of a suddenly mellowing regime but, rather, the mercurial proclivities of a tyrannical leader who presides over a Gulag. Like the Soviet Union, North Korea is a country where yesterday's weather can be altered by decree. North Korea, in other words, is not Mickey Mouse.
Someone should tell Rupert Murdoch to shut up. You might think that a news magnate with as sordid a record as Murdoch would have the sense to refrain from commenting publicly on the American presidential race. Murdoch may try to deny culpability as much as he can, but he is the press baron who presided over the scandals afflicting his news empire in England, where one nasty revelation after another has emerged about the antics of his minions, a number of whom may be facing jail sentences. A period of silence and personal reflection might seem to be in order.
No such luck. As the New York Times reports, Murdoch has moved on from the royals to bash a new target: Mitt Romney. Murdoch has been propounding unsolicited advice for Romney. Most of his complaints are commonplace, but because he is the one making them, they are attracting inordinate attention. In part he's suggesting that Romney dump members of his campaign team, a move that would suggest panic if a wholesale massacre were to take place. Plus, disenchanted former employees hardly miss a chance to snipe at their old boss.
Another Murdoch brainstorm is that Romney simply isn't conservative enough. Murdoch's heroes seems to be Rick Santorum, the hapless senator from Pennsylvania, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who lacks the polish to be a serious presidential candidate. Earth to Murdoch: the primary is finished. Romney won. Get over it.
Now, being told by the likes of Murdoch that you aren't doing a good job running the campaign is something that Romney may regard with humor—a trait that, it must be said, he has not displayed in much abundance during the campaign. And being criticized for not being conservative enough may also be a criticism that the campaign welcomes as it tries to pursue independent voters. Nevertheless, there is something petty about the criticisms of Romney that Murdoch is voicing. For one thing, he's bashing Romney for the one trait and success—his discipline and business record—that he can plausibly point to as assets in his run for the presidency. To complain that Romney walked into a meeting with the Wall Street Journal and focused on facts and figures rather than ideology? Please. Moving further to the Right is not going to aid Romney. A rerun of the George W. Bush presidency is hardly a winning ticket for the 2012 election. Murdoch's animadversions point to a broader problem assailing the conservative movement, which is that it often sounds like a bunch of crybabies whining that Romney isn't conservative enough.
There a number of possibilities here that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. For one thing, conservatives clearly are preparing for a new George H. W. Bush—or at least they want to warn Romney off that path. By assailing him as lacking the cojones to be a real conservative, they hope to prod him to the Right. It's also the case that the Right may figure that Romney is doomed and that it's better off without him as president. In this instance, conservatives would be preparing to run the real thing in 2016. Given the tenor of Wall Street Journal editorials about Romney, it seems clear that any support for him from the Right (and Murdoch) would be at best halfhearted.
Whether or not the Journal really enters the lists for Romney, however, is not going to decide his electoral fortunes. Romney, stiff and verbally maladroit, is simply not a very good candidate, but he is the best one that the GOP could produce after eight years of the Bush regency. But the state of the economy means he will be able to mount a challenge to Obama, no matter the bellyaching from the right. The truly scary prospect may be that Murdoch, who has become infra dig in London, may now be trying to set up shop in America. Give this Australian parvenu credit for audacity. But it would be foolish to heed his musings about American politics.
Image: World Economic Forum
OK, my title is a little inflammatory. But it is the kind of thing that Newt Gingrich has been wont to say in the past about President Obama and anyone else he deems as lily-livered in the war against terrorism. Now, according to TalkingPointsMemo, the Atlantic and other outlets, it appears that the former Speaker has himself been lauding an organization that the State Department continues to view as a terrorist one, namely, the Iranian MEK. He's calling it a "massive, world-wide movement for liberation in Iran."
Strong words. But then again, conservatives always have been prone to proclaim that the State Department consists of a bunch of appeasement-minded wussbags who don't understand America's true national interests. But in this case, the State Department more than likely has it right.
Paul Pillar, who blogs regularly for TNI, knows a lot more about the MEK than I do or probably ever will. As near as I can tell, he thinks it is very bad news indeed, an organization that America would do well to keep at a distance—an organization that the BBC says some Western officials regard as nothing less than a coercive cult. But what is common knowledge is enough to give any sensible observer pause. So I confess to finding it more than a little disturbing that Gingrich would embrace this dubious organization made up of Iranian exiles with such zeal. He attended a rally for it last Sunday in Paris, which is located in France (a country that conservatives in the Gingrich mold usually denounce as consisting of a bunch of craven appeasers). But Gingrich's neocon zeal for the would-be liberators of Iran knows no bounds. The MEK may have had a close relationship with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and even supported it during the Iran-Iraq war. None of this, however, seems to faze Gingrich.
There are, however, several problems with Gingrich's bluster. One is that America is already taking an extremely hawkish stance toward Iran. President Obama has launched a war in all but name against Iran. Whether it will turn into a shooting one is something that probably won't be apparent until his second term. Another problem with Ginrich's bloviation is that we don't really know enough about the MEK to hail it as a bunch of freedom fighters. Conservatives did that with regularity during the Cold War—Jonas Savimbi in Angola or the contras in Nicaragua. And, by the way, what about Ahmed Chalabi, who was hailed as the next liberator of Iraq? The results, to put it politely, were somewhat dubious. America has a history of getting into bed with characters who profess dedication to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But their own records, particularly when it comes to human rights and democracy, tend to be unhappy ones.
Another problem is that Gingrich is essentially freelancing. He is spouting off about something that he does not know much about. Now there isn't much new about that. This is, by and large, what Gingrich does. He expectorates like a gushing fire hydrant in the middle of the summer about any and all sundry topics. Even during the primary season, it was almost impossible to get him to shut up, no matter how woeful his electoral numbers might have been. He lives to talk and talks to live. A silent Gingrich is almost as inconceivable as a spontaneous Mitt Romney.
Gingrich's remarks in Paris won't dent his image as it has already been dented. How influential Gingrich is at this point may also be questioned. But his remarks are symptomatic of a broader problem among his adherents, which is to say that they are not particularly choosy about whom they choose to support or ally themselves with in the fight against dictators and terror. Perhaps Gingrich might respond that you can't always be persnickety about your allies when battling the likes of the Iranian mullahs. But he seems to be hailing them as the George Washingtons of the Middle East. That's ludicrous. It's also a development that you might even be justified in labeling terrifying if the MEK really were to become the new pet cause of crusading conservatives. What Gingrich is courting is not the liberation of Iran but a replay of the Iraq War. That is a path that no American administration should follow.
Has Germany declared war on Europe? Or has Europe declared war on Germany? Speaking to members of the Free Democratic Party, her coalition partner, German chancellor Angela Merkel announced that euro bonds would never be created "as long as I live."
Merkel's remarks created a flurry of fresh consternation among her critics, both in Germany and abroad, as everyone tries to puzzle out whether she really means it or is just bluffing. In part, Merkel is trying to shore up her bona fides at home, especially with the Free Democrats, a classically liberal party that represents industry and views the idea of pooled debt—which is what a Eurobond would represent—with horror. The Free Democrats surely would rather see Greece and other countries depart the euro before the German taxpayer has to absorb the losses accumulated by its once-cherished euro partners down south.
The Social Democrats and the Greens, by contrast, are criticizing her refusal to contemplate euro bonds. They want to become financially bonded to Germany's European partners, or at least say they do, as long as they themselves are not in power. But as an electoral issue, it is a nonstarter. The Germans don't view pooling debt as a way to emancipate Europe. They view euro bonds as representing permanent euro bondage. Malte Lehming, the opinion editor of the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel, says, "Thank God we have Merkel. The Euro bonds and calls for more spending represent a failed Keynesianism. Things are going well for us economically. If we had spent hundreds of billions more, what would it have brought us? More debt." Lehming views France's latest stimulus with contempt: "Building more roads creates jobs in the short-term. But it does not create long-term economic activity."
The clash is clear. In Europe, the socialists want to follow the path of the Obama administration, which is to try old-fashioned stimulus. And if the stimulus does not stimulate, the response goes, then not enough stimulation took place in the first place. Merkel and British prime minister David Cameron see it differently. But Cameron really has no voice in debates over the euro. It is the doughty German chancellor who is holding out against the rest of Europe. To understand why Merkel feels so confident, you only need to look around Berlin, which is a vast construction site, a buzz of activity. There is no hint of an economic slowdown. Instead, a new Teutonic colossus is arising in the heart of Europe, one that is not dependent on its neighbors. They need Germany more than Germany needs them. Even the burden of the historical past, which largely dictated former chancellor Helmut Kohl's push for the euro, is ebbing away. A new Germany is emerging.
Whether European Union president Herman Van Rompuy will be able to overrule Merkel is questionable. The latest European summit was suppposed to be the one that solved this problem. But all along the incentive for Germany has been to play out this crisis as long as possible, which means that more lofty-sounding declarations will emanate from Brussels without curing any of the ills afflicting Europe. Whether those ailments can be quickly treated is increasingly dubious. Spain is announcing that even the private highways it built have turned out be be commerically unviable. Cyprus, headed by a communist, wants a bailout.
Small wonder that Merkel and the Germans wish in their heart of hearts that they would all go away. Germany is learning what it feels like to be America—powerful and resented. That is the price of success. But so far, it seems to be one that the Germans appear more than ready to pay. Germany has become the land of the 1 percent, and the rest of Europe is the 99 percent. They will have to get used to it. Germany already is.
Image: א (Aleph)
Poor Angela Merkel. She keeps getting bashed as the incarnation of all that is wrong with the German approach to Europe. The New York Times, for example, explains in an editorial that her approach is "piecemeal" and driving the European Union to destruction.
This is nonsense. As Josef Joffe points out in an essay in the Financial Times, the über-Keynesians, as he terms them, forget that Europe has already been pumping massive amounts of money into the southern states, and it accomplished little. To lay all the blame on Frau Merkel's doorstep may be emotionally satisfying, but it will do nothing to solve the current crisis.
As Joffe notes, it is not true that Germany has simly profited from having an export market in Europe. The euro began at less than a dollar versus the greenback but has risen considerably since then. It took economic reforms, painful ones, to transform Germany back into the economic powerhouse of Europe. Those reforms, incidentally, were instituted by a socialist chancellor named Gerhard Schroeder.
Sure, the Greeks and Spainiards would like nothing better than for Germany to pour every last euro it possesses into their economies. But Merkel knows she must answer to German voters. They have no interest in in mortgaging their own pensions for the sake of southern Europe. Or the Germans may conclude that Europe is not too big to fail. A controversial new book currently on display in German bookshops is called Europe Does Not Need the Euro. Maybe Europe does. But Germany, by contrast, does not. The Continent could be about to find out the answer.
During the past year, Greeks have become increasingly antagonistic towards Germans. They've evoked memories of the Third Reich. They've complained about German financial rigidity. And, of course, they've flirted with leaving the euro.
But all flirtations come to an end, and Greece is now entrenched in the euro zone, or at least it has made it clear in the June 17 election that it has no intention of fleeing, no idea of flinging Jovian thunderbolts down from Mt Olympus. It may dislike reform, but it loathes the idea of abandoning the euro even more. Which is perhaps the worst news that it could deliver to Germany.
It was increasingly difficult to dispel the sense that Germans harbored, and continue to harbor, a good deal of Schadenfreude about the plight of the Greeks. The suddenly unhappy southerners, so the German thinking went, were being punished for their previous hedonism. Meanwhile, the Protestant North, thrifty and hardworking, was prospering as a result of its efforts. Why should the Germans bail out their impoverished cousins down South? The Germans could only fondly dream that the Greeks would execute their threat, commit financial hara-kiri, and bail out of the euro. Germany, already reeling from several decades worth of a federal "solidarity tax" of 5.4 percent for the former East Germany that does not expire until 2019, would have been relieved of the prospect of further transfer payments down south.
That's over. It looks like the Germans will have to cinch their Lederhosen even tighter in coming years. For the Greeks have emerged from their trance of the past few weeks to recognize that they faced a Hobson's choice, which is to say that there really wasn't any choosing for them to do. Confronted with the prospect of returning to the drachma, they surely realized that the good old days weren't all that great. The euro is the only thing that can save Greece, which is about to hold its neighbors hostage. Like it or not, Greece will have to be revived in some form or other. Germany remains wary: as German columnist Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger has observed, the fundamental problem in Greece is that it wants to blame its problems on outsiders. In truth, Greeks have been victimized by their own corrupt elites, including the conservative New Democracy party, which squeaked by in the latest round of elections.
For the short-term, it would have been catastrophic for Greece to exit the euro. Inflation would have soared and the county would have been unable to pay for any imports, including petroleum. It would likely have come to a complete standstill. Now Greece has the chance to reverse the tables. It's been the good, dutiful neighbor that has voted not to desert its neighbors. Rather, it is flinging itself into their laps, desperate for some kind of modus vivendi. With France treading down the path of socialism once more, Greece may even get a bit more of a hearing in the councils of Europe.
The coming weeks will shine a spotlight on Germany's Angela Merkel. The dour chancellor may have hoped that Greece would bail out on the bailouts. No longer. Now she has an even bigger problem than a Greek exit on her hands. It's the fact that Greece is staying that will keep her awake at night. But the notion that Merkel will somehow balk at trying to aid Greece further is improbable. The euro is not going anywhere, no matter what Euroskeptics might like. In assessing Europe, the wish has often been the father of the thought among conservatives who dislike the idea of a single Europe rather than a collection of nation-states. But this crisis may well end up accelerating the process of integration rather than leading to a crack up.
President Obama is delighted that Greece hasn't blown up the euro. He's terrified at the thought that Europe won't get its economic house in order and obliterate any prospect of a second term for him. But the idea that any solution will come quickly—or that Greece does not remained divded internally—is a pipedream. Rather than a deus ex machina appearing to save the day, it may take years before Europe emerges from its new time of troubles.
Russia is in ferment. As President Vladimir Putin tries to ensure the stability of his regime, protesters have been assailing his administration as corrupt and moribund. It's becoming cool and hip and fashionable to complain about the state of affairs. Thus even socialite Ksenia Sobchak, described by the Washington Post as Russia's "It Girl," has joined the ranks of the malcontents.
Now comes a new bombshell. Russia's new culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, who has something of an equivocal record when it comes to judging the Soviet past, says he wants to shut down a state-run enterprise. He says it's time to let Vladimir Ilyich Lenin rest in peace. No more Lenin's tomb in Red Square, no more glass coffin, no more enormous lines. Such a move might represent something of a setback for Russia's tourism industry, not to mention the old-guard Stalinists who revere the founder of the modern communist state. Where would the embalmers ply their trade? What would happen to their expertise? Would this be another Russian tradition that falls by the wayside to modernization?
Putin has been more circumspect about the matter. But Medinsky seems serious. According to him,
Maybe, indeed, many things in our life would symbolically change for the better after this.
Whatever his motives, I think Medinsky is right. In fact, Lenin should have been buried a long time ago. It was Stalin who cooked up Lenin's burial as a way of legitimizing his own nasty rule. It was also Stalin who may have poisoned the old boy, hastening his own bloody, dictatorial rule. But it was Lenin who, of course, made Stalin possible, which is different than saying his rule was inevitable. Medinsky wants to turn the mausoleum into a museum. It would be a pity if it were to glorify Lenin, the inventor of the Russian concentration camp and a murderous killer in his own right. Truth to tell, Lenin deserves the kind of burial that Osama Bin Laden received. Both men were terrorists, but one managed, thanks to World War I and a hapless tsar, to shoot his way into power, including murdering the defenseless royal family. Lenin, a sanctimonious windbag, began the destruction of Russian society, a job that Stalin completed. It has yet to recover from their depredations. A museum could begin the process of telling the truth about this thug.
An online poll indicates that many Russians also believe that Lenin should be removed from Red Square. As Medinsky has noted, Lenin and his relatives were never keen on the idea of public displays. The pharaonic element in Bolshevism was introduced by Stalin. Walter Rodgers, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, has warned against removing Lenin's corpse. In his view,
Interring Lenin beside his mother in St. Petersburg may paper over, but will not expunge, the bloody Bolshevik past. Shakespeare reminds us that “the evil men do lives after them.” Modern Russia would dishonor communism’s victims if Lenin’s corpse is smuggled out of town on a moonless night.
But it's also possible that an interment might prompt Russians to confront his sanguinary legacy, to reexamine his misdeeds, to recognize that his actions continue to shape modern Russia in profoundly destructive ways. Lenin's burial need not be an occasion for burying the past. In removing Lenin from Red Square, Russia would be saying that he no longer serves as a father figure. It could come one step closer to confronting its past honestly. So far, Putin has seemed disinclined to face up to it. The issue of his interment might offer him a different route to follow, one that could set a different tone for modern Russia.
What would Barack Obama do in a second term? This is the question that Ryan Lizza poses in a lengthy and informative essay about modern presidencies in the New Yorker. Lizza suggests that he might look at Ronald Reagan's playbook, which is to say that he should focus on a few big priorities—"The Reagan Administration quickly grasped that whatever power it had gained through reelection had to be spent judiciously."
It's a conundrum that tends to preoccupy presidents as they search for a legacy. In two cases—Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush—it has meant heaving overboard much of the ideological baggage that encumbered them during their first term. Take Reagan. Fellow TNI blogger Paul Pillar suggests in a recent (and droll) post about conservatism and Republicans that it was "misleading" of me to suggest that Reagan was a mixture of neocon and rollback conservative. Not so, says Pillar. Reagan was a realist.
Here I must part company with Pillar. This observation is true for the second-term Reagan. It does not, however, apply to the Reagan of the first term, who in his initial press conference created a sensation by declaring that Soviet leaders reserve the right to "lie, cheat, and steal to get whatever they want." There was, in other words, plenty of chiliastic rhetoric emanating from the old boy who almost singlehandedly created the nuclear-freeze movement with his dire pronouncements. Reagan, in other words, didn't shrink from demonizing America's adversaries.
It's also the case that Reagan brought on board the neocons who had gone into exile from the Democratic party. The neocon members of the Reagan administration included Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz. Reagan loved Kirkpatrick. Then there were the rollback communism types such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and Secretary of State Al Haig, who seemed ready to go to war with Cuba. Finally, Reagan presided over the Iran-contra affair, which landed the neocons in a mess of trouble and prompted George H.W. Bush allegedly to refer to the "crazies in the basement." This was no administration of shrinking violets.
It wasn't until Reagan's second term that he shifted course, moving far beyond the detente that Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger had envisioned to strike far-reaching accords with Mikhail Gorbachev. James Baker and George Shultz both played vital roles in prompting Reagan to reach out to Gorbachev. But it's also the case that Reagan got lucky. Absent Gorbachev, he would not have been able to wind down the cold war. Note that I'm not saying that Reagan was a full-blooded neocon. He believed in the alliance with Europe and used proxies, as Pillar notes, to conduct warfare (though Grenada was much ballyhooed as a sign that America was back). But as himself a lapsed supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Reagan had some consanguinity with the neocons.
What about George W. Bush? Here again we can see the phenomenon at work. In his first term, Bush swallowed the neocon line and turned himself into the pliant instrument of Vice President Dick Cheney. By 2006, however, he had begun to wise up. Cheney was curbed. The neocons were starting to come into bad odor. Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates were now conducting foreign policy. The realists—the grown-ups--had returned.
Where does this leave Obama? The president has not been very ideological in his approach to foreign affairs. He has adhered to many realist stances. At the same time, as James Mann observes in The Obamians, he has maneuvered, sometimes hypocritically, in assuming war powers that his office may not necessarily possess. Obama is no imperialist, but he has further strengthened the imperial presidency. Mann suggests that he may have even exceeded George W. Bush in this department by going to war in Libya, while claiming all along that it was not even warfare.
So where would Obama head in a second term? The old dictum of Harold MacMillan—"events, dear boy, events"—springs to mind. For all the penchant of the media for viewing the president as some kind of grand vizier, their power to control events is, more often than not, limited. Nevertheless, Obama does have proclivities and impulses, not to mention a vast national-security apparatus at his disposal, one that dwarfs anything in recent American history: Lizza suggests that Obama might be tougher than he was in his first term with countries such as Iran or China. His most immediate challenge will be in Syria where, Lizza writes, "he may have to decide if he wants to push harder to topple President Bashar al-Assad, possibly by force."
If Obama became even more interventionist, then he would be following the Bill Clinton model. During his first term, Clinton did everything he could to avoid entering the Balkans conflict militarily. In his second term, he bombed the Serbs and drove Slobodan Milosevic from power. If Obama wants to follow a more emollient approach, he will have to try and win one for the Gipper. In studying the records of his predecessors, Obama has plenty of models to choose from as he contemplates his future.